I walked straight ahead, looking neither right nor left in a darkened alley illuminated by a quarter-moon.
I quickened my pace, but there was no avoiding the shadowy figure. “Ain’t gonna harm ya. Jus’ wanna sell ya somethin’.”
I hesitated, shaking. Stepping in front of me, he shoved a pack under my nose. I was afraid to speak. He wasn’t.
“Cigs. Buck each,” he whispered ominously through his throat.
“A buck?” I asked suspiciously.
“You want it or not?”
“That’s only $20 a pack.” In tandem with the gnarling anti-smoker lobby, apparently frustrated by years of smoker abstinence, 11 state legislatures had raised cigarette taxes in 2002; about 20 more would eventually increase the cigarette tax.
The largest increase was for New York City smokers who were being choked with a $1.50 a pack state tax, a $1.50 a pack city tax, and 39 cents in federal taxes, raising a pack to more than $7. The price would remain about a New York minute.
New Jersey, which New Yorkers think of as a place to dump trash, soon came into line; in a spirit of comraderie–and because it didn’t want all those snooty city people crossing the Hudson River–the Garden State raised its taxes. Nearby Pennsylvania, where Ben Franklin once thought hemp could be the Commonwealth’s drug of choice, tripled its taxes to more than $1 a pack.
To justify the tax increases, governors and their loopy legislators had claimed they were concerned about the health of the residents, the fact that teens were buying cigarettes illegally–and that there were more holes in their deficit-ridden budgets than potholes on state highways.
To underscore their states’ determinations to keep their residents safe from smoke, by 2004 several state legislatures created stiff prison time for driving while under the influence of cigarettes, assault with a deadly cigarette, and jaywalking while puffing. None taxed smoke-spewing industries, however, since they all raised their fingers and gave the Boy Scout promise to some day think about installing filters on their smoke stacks.
I was desperate and my would-be supplier knew it.
“You think just because a pack’s more expensive, you can stop?” my dealer asked. “You don’t think those cigarette company executives were blowing smoke past the Congress when they said nicotine isn’t addictive? Don’t you think these states are now addicted to the revenue from cigarette taxes and really want you to keep smoking?”
I leaped at my stalking shadowy figure with the miracle junk.
“Not so fast!” he growled, pulling the pack away. “Let’s see your bread.”
“I don’t have any bread,” I pleaded. “Not since the five buck tax on anything with flour in it.”
“Not that bread, turkey! Bread! Lettuce!”
“I gave up lettuce two years ago,” I said, “when we were wilted by the $7 tax on anything grown by independent farmers. Said it’d help the economy and balance the state’s need to send legislators to off-shore conferences.”
“Bucks! Dollar bills!” he explained.
“Not since the 17.76 percent Freedom Tax for anyone wanting to withdraw anything from their savings, checking, or CD accounts.”
The man pulled up his trench coat and began to leave.
“Wait!” I pleaded, digging into my pockets. “I got change.”
He laughed, contemptuously. “That’s not even coffee money.”
“I don’t drink coffee,” I mumbled. “Not since they imprisoned Juan Valdez and his donkey for trying to roast the $35 a pound bean tax.” I grabbed for his supply of cigarettes, each disguised in a plain brown wrapper, each more valuable than a banned rap record. He again pulled them away.
“I ain’t no Red Cross. You want cigs, you pay for cigs. I got thousands who will.”
“I need a fix. You can’t let me die on the streets.”
“If it was just me, I’d do it. But there’s the boys. They keep the records. If I give you a pack and don’t get no money, they’ll break both my arms. Cigs are big business. I don’t cross nobody. And I don’t give it away.”
“I’ll get it from the internet,” I said. About two-thirds of the internet sales are shipped from Indian reservations, which don’t add state or federal taxes.
“Could do that, but how do you know the purity of the merchandise? Think Navajos can grow tobacco in Arizona deserts?” He paused a moment. “I hear the Indians sometimes cut peyote into their stash. With me, you get guarantees it’s pure nicotine and tobacco, cut just right.”
“Give me a pack,” I demanded, “or I’ll tell everyone on the street that you have the stuff. What happens when you can’t meet the demand?”
“There’ll always be a demand,” he said, “but I have junk that isn’t so expensive. Not many taxes. Gives you an artificial high but diminishes brain capacity even faster.”
“Everything’s being taxed.”
“Wouldn’t joke about that,” he said. “Legislators never added taxes to beer or liquor.”
“Probably an oversight,” I said.
“Probably because without it, they never would have passed those other ridiculous taxes.”
Walt Brasch, a former newspaper reporter and editor, never smoked–or even inhaled–but he understands a tax-shaft when he falls into one. Brasch’s latest book is “The Joy of Sax,” a witty and penetrating look at America During the Bill Clinton Era. The book is available at local and on-line bookstores. You may reach Brasch by e-mail at email@example.com